DiscovHer, a new website and newsletter focusing on women in science, has a fascinating feature about Joan Clarke, one of wartime Britain’s few women code-breakers and a friend and one-time fiancé of Alan Turing
Clarke, of course, features in the movie The Imitation Game, about Turing but is still far less well-known than the computer science pioneer.
If Turing suffered from indignities and injustice due to his homosexuality, the times weren’t much more enlightened about women. Despite a brilliant academic career at Cambridge, where she was awarded the Philippa Fawcett Prize, named for the woman mathematician who out-performed her male classmates in 1890, and the Helen Gladstone Scholarship, when she graduated in 1939 she technically won a double-first.
The university only started awarding full degrees to women in 1948 – 28 years after Oxford.
(On the 50th anniversary of the first full degree going to a woman – an honorary degree for the late Queen Mother as it happens – Cambridge made at least partial amends by granting full degrees to all 900 women graduates who had gone before that date).
Then at the British code-breaking headquarters Bletchley Park, Clarke developed a method to accelerate decryption of the double-enciphered messages sent to U-boat officers. While some decryption techniques were named after their inventor, Clarke’s wasn’t.
Even Turing gave her only a back-handed compliment, saying approvingly that it was possible to talk to her “like a man”.
More information about the women cryptographers of Bletchley here.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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